An Eco-Tour for the Bird: Hiking in Guatemala
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The definition of the perfect vacation is a very personal matter. Some people want relaxation, some want excitement.
For commentator Julie Zickefoose, a recent trip was all about one thing: a glimpse of an extremely rare bird.
JULIE ZICKEFOOSE reporting:
Only100 feet to go.
My companions are crouching up the trail, gesturing, smiling, urging me upward. I'm at the absolute limit of my endurance. We have been climbing this volcano in Guatemala for almost five hours. It's early afternoon. Every muscle in our bodies is shrieking with pain and two armed Guatemalan guards who went ahead our band of birders have found the object of our quest: the horned guan.
My husband Bill is lugging a spotting scope and a tripod. I have a 20-pound pack with field guide, optical equipment, camera, sketchbook. My breath comes in ragged sobs and I drop to all fours, struggling upward, praying that the great bird stays just a few more moments.
The horned guan is found only on a few forested volcano vastnesses in Guatemala and Mexico. It's in the curassow family, something like turkey, something like a peacock, and nothing like either. It is the size of a Canada goose, shiny black and white, with a blank white eye and a peculiar red horn sticking up atop its head.
It looks like a feathered dinosaur, and biologically speaking, it almost is. It is the rarest of the rare.
There are a dozen people in our group, most of them lifelong birders. We have climbed this extinct volcano, winding our way upward through coffee and corn patches, to reach the tonsure of remnant forest around the volcanoes peak where the horned guan still lives.
Marco Santano, the Guatemalan ornithologist who's brought us here, confesses later that despite our effort, we had only about a five percent chance of seeing the guan.
I'm glad I didn't know that at dawn, when we started climbing. I crawl and fall and gasp and finally, I am there and the guan is before me, staring at me with that white eye, expressionless. Soon it spreads its great blue-black wings, crouches, leaps, and is gone in the thick canopy, only a leaf fluttering down to show where it had been.
But I have seen it. And the agonizing climb and even worse descent seem a small price to pay.
I flop down beside Juliano, one of our Myan guides, laughing weakly, giddy with exhilaration. We talk about the bird that he calls Pavo de Cacho. "Pavo de Cacho is mui bien," he comments. At first I think he's saying it's a neat bird, until I get his meaning. "Patta go mayer?" I ask, and he nods. "Mui bien."
So here I sit, drenched in high-powered optics and my own sweat, out $300 bucks for the privilege of climbing this immense volcano on the small chance I might glimpse the horned guan before it goes extinct, and Juliano has gnawed on their bones.
Here, high above Lake Atignon, we're on the cutting edge of eco-tourism. I hope that this little multinational expedition of Americans, Canadians, Brits and Guatemalans proves that a horned guan is worth more alive than dead.
Back at the foot of the mountain we all pool our money to tip the guides, hoping to buy a little more time for the guan.
SIEGEL: Julie Zickefoose lives in Whipple, Ohio.
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